Heat tests improved grid, and it appears to pass

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July 8, 2010 10:01:58 AM PDT
Well before the brutal peak of this week's East Coast heat wave, utility managers watched as overwhelmed circuits in New York shut down one by one. Hundreds of homes in Queens went dark.

The city turned to a wholesale power market upstate to buy extra energy, at peak prices, to keep the air conditioners humming. By the end of the day, all but about 25,000 of Consolidated Edison's 9 million customers still had power.

The balancing act has played out up and down the East Coast during a vicious stretch of hot weather that has presented the electricity grid with one of its toughest tests since a massive blackout in 2003. For the most part, it has held up.

"I can't sit here and say there's never going to be another blackout," said Gerry W. Cauley, president of the North American Electric Reliability Corp. "But we're much better prepared."

Utilities and regulators credit reforms and upgrades put in place after the 2003 outage, which left tens of millions of people without power in the Northeast and parts of Canada.

The corporation, authorized by the government three years ago to regulate the grid, enforces national guidelines for training utility managers, clearing vegetation from lines and using technology to keep blackouts from happening again.

It wields a big stick. Rules considered voluntary before the blackout are now backed by NERC fines that can add up to $1 million per day.

Regional power grids also have started talking to each other more. A U.S.-Canadian task force blamed the 2003 blackout in part on poor coordination between regional agencies that allowed power failures to spread.

PJM Interconnection, a Pennsylvania company that manages one of the largest power grids in the world, has invested nearly $15 billion over the past decade to improve its network. It works with neighboring grids in the Midwest and Tennessee Valley. And its control room now features more detailed displays that help operators decide where to send power.

"If you can see something out a little farther and see something coming," PJM spokesman Ray Dotter said, "the more time you have to respond."

The blackout in August 2003 wasn't triggered by high temperatures or heavy demand. A task force later discovered that it began as overgrown trees damaged transmission lines in Ohio.

The drop in voltage quickly spread to surrounding networks, taking just minutes to put vast swaths of the Midwest and Northeast in the dark. The power was shut off for days, causing as much as $10 billion in damage to the U.S. economy.

Since then, NERC policies have forced utilities to train staff to know how to use their equipment and identify power failures. It's handed down roughly 2,000 penalties for violating safety standards, and once NERC identifies a problem affecting power transmission in one region, it sends out alerts to grid operators in the rest of the country.

Midwestern utilities also benefit from a sort of air traffic control system for power, the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator. Since 2003, the operator has started selling energy to utilities to help them anticipate spikes in demand.

New York state has its own independent system operator, and when utilities needed more juice on Tuesday, as the temperature soared above 100 degrees in New York City, it pumped more onto the grid.

The operator, headquartered near Albany, sells spare electricity on its "real time" market to power companies throughout the day as needed.

On Tuesday, real-time prices to New York surged from $33.12 per megawatt hour at 6 a.m. to $1,357 at 2:40 p.m. The market represents only a tiny percent of the energy bought on wholesale markets.

High demand during a hot summer day makes money for a lot of people, including power generators, which send their electricity where it is most needed - particularly the power-hungry Northeast, said Glenn Williams, an analyst for Thestreet.com.

"The Canadians are making money as they import power," Williams said. "They're not only importing power in through New England, but they're importing power also in New York and also in the Midwest."

The system operator for New York doesn't disclose how much energy gets sold on its wholesale markets. But judging from the jump in prices, it is clear utilities are digging in for a long, hot summer.

As temperatures soared, energy demand on the grid peaked at 33,452 megawatts on Tuesday, nearly twice the daily average for the year. It hit 32,840 megawatts on Wednesday.

The East Coast should see some relief later in the week as cooler air moves inland from the Atlantic, forecasters say. Daytime highs should be in the lower 90s, considerably lower than earlier this week.

When temperatures jump again, Con Ed will count on high-tech sensors in its network that detect and locate faults in the grid, allowing the company to patch up problems faster, John Miksad, the utility's senior vice president of electric operations.

"That's critical on days like today," he said.

Eventually, Con Ed hopes the sensors will help predict weaknesses in the grid before they become a problem. That would allow maintenance crews to repair parts of the grid in the spring, well before energy demand spikes in the summer.


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